Portrait: From Germany with a fondness for Swedish equality

A major reason why the German-born, now double citizenship holding, new professor of experimental atomic and molecular physics at the University of Gothenburg, Raimund Feifel, has decided to stay in Sweden, is our equality. Already as an exchange student in Uppsala, he felt very comfortable with how people on different levels, like a professor and a janitor, could converse with one another and have common coffee breaks.
Before he came to study physics at Uppsala University in the middle of the nineties, he did not know much about Sweden. It was his most exotic option among the choices of organized exchange programs available at the time. He knew, however, that our general standard of living was very high and that he would be able to get along speaking English.The equality was a major reason for Feifel's staying in Sweden, but also that he got the option to do a PhD here in an environment where he felt excited about the research and at ease.

Determination important for his success
His parents were very supportive of his efforts to become an academic. His late father was a carpenter and his mother was early on a secretary and later a housewife, very typical for Germany in the 70’s and 80’s. His father was always very proud of and curious about Feifel's achievements. However, it is his mother's determination, that he's inherited, that has made him succeed with his class journey.

– I never give up. I try, evaluate, reconsider and try again until I succeed.

There were other sources of inspiration as well. His mother passed on her desire to become an academic that she had never had the opportunity to satisfy herself. The father of a childhood friend of Feifel's was a professor in Germanistics. This gave birth to an interest for the academic life. It was finally a very pedagogical physics teacher who managed to make the complexities of the subject understandable to his pupils and Feifel (as a matter fact, both Feifel and one of his fellow-pupils, Margarete Mühlleitner, are today full professors in physics). 
Feifel did however begin studying law at the University of Konstanz. It was a young campus university beautifully located at the lake of Konstanz and close to Switzerland with a great value for outdoor sports activities.

– Law was interesting but did not feel right to me.

Finally physics
Thus Feifel returned to the world of physics which the pedagogical physics teacher had once recommended for him. There he met a very enthusiastic and successful young professor, Gerhard Rempe (who is now one of the directors at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching) who initiated Feifel’s interest in atomic and molecular physics, and another outstanding scientist and teacher, Professor Eckehard Recknagel who turned out to have very open ears for a student who wanted to explore the world of physics early on at an international level. Recknagel's encouragement and support was to be very fundamental for Feifel's future successes.  In 1995 Feifel came to Uppsala as an exchange student.
Feifel did his Master thesis at Lund University 1997-1998 at the Swedish synchrotron radiation facility MAX-lab.

– Synchrotron radiation facilities generate X-rays of very high quality and in a very large energy range which is tunable.
It is possible for many students and researchers to use the facility at the same time for many different scientific investigations.

Spectroscopy of atoms and molecules
– I used it for spectroscopy of atoms and molecules. To begin with, we built up state-of-the-art equipment for  studying how electrons are separated from atoms and molecules when the latter were hit by light.

These studies Feifel has carried out as a PhD student using a conventional single-electron detection technique, and continues doing now in his research together with his group in a multi-dimensional fashion which aims at obtaining complete pictures of ionisation processes. At present, the so-called MAX-IV laboratory is being constructed in Lund.

– Soon it will be the foremost synchrotron radiation facility in the world to be inaugurated on June 21, 2016.

Feifel is currently the chairman of the Users' Organization of the MAX laboratory. His research can for example help humanity in understanding what happens when light hits atoms and molecules in the interstellar space and in the earth's atmosphere. The scientific results obtained also have implications on understanding better plasma formation processes as well as chemical reactions.

When it works at last
What thrills Feifel about being a physicist is how it allows him to discover new scientific aspects.

– It starts with an idea on how to search for something. Then we build an apparatus for that purpose. Usually it does not work right away. Then we amend and improve the apparatus. When it finally works, it is a truly remarkable feeling.
His job has for many years also allowed Feifel to travel a lot. He enjoys getting to know new people, cultures and new scientific ideas and results on these journeys.

During his time as a PhD student at Uppsala University, he started to work closely with Professor Leif Karlsson who became an important mentor for Feifel’s later career development. After his PhD, Feifel did a post doc at Oxford University.

– There I got to work with Professor John H.D. Eland, probably the most brilliant scientist that I have ever met during my career. He gave me lots of inspiration and new ideas to work on as well as ways to solve them. He taught me how to construct scientific equipment from scratch and with limited resources.

Excellent tutorial system
– Oxford also had the best academic educational system I have seen so far. Typically one or two students met a tutor at least about once a week during term. This allowed for very close teacher-student contacts on an individual level and led to great results.

In early 2012, a professorship in experimental atomic and molecular physics was announced at the University of Gothenburg.

– This hardly ever happens in Sweden and especially not in my research field.
Feifel, who was at the time already promoted to full professor at Uppsala University, applied and got the position in hard competition.

Handling stress
Being a researcher is very stressful with hundreds of obligations every week.

– I wish the constantly growing amount of administrative work could be reduced substantially or at least transferred onto a personal secretary whom my colleagues in Germany are typically provided with once they are appointed as professors. This is one of my biggest dreams in relation to the hoped-for reduction of my daily work load and will hopefully turn out not to be entirely illusive, bearing in mind the substantial amount of overhead which is taken off our research money by the university.

– To cope with the stress, you have to be able to prioritize, but also to constantly be ready to re-prioritize. I work something like 12 hours a day, but have to accept that I often have not accomplished everything, that I set out to do in the morning. I need to relax when I go home to my wife Larisa and our infant son Niklas or to do sports.

He does some teaching even though his current funding situation does not request to (he holds a prestigious Senior Research Fellowship provided by the Swedish Research Council). When he teaches, he tries to show the students the actual research laboratory work.

– I hope that can inspire someone in her or his own future career.
Both as a research group leader and as a teacher, he thinks it is very important with clarity in what you say and in structures.

– Things must be well defined to work well.
Following up on the progress in the research group is finally very important, even if there is always a lack of time.


Text: Oskar Brandt
Foto: Henrik Sandsjö

Published: Mon 22 Jun 2015.